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April 2016


“Will Democracy Trump Fascism”

by Parker Palmer (, 3/23/16)


What are the big take-aways?


One of my favorite weekly columnists on the on “On Being” website (or anywhere else, for that matter), Parker Palmer is an educator, activist and thought leader in the field of civic dialogue and engagement.  He is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, and his latest book is Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (Jossey-Bass, 2011).


In his March 23rd column, Palmer (no relation) quotes a young Abraham Lincoln declaring that any real threat to the United States on U.S. soil is not likely to come from anywhere abroad, but from within.  As Palmer points out:


Lincoln did not anticipate the global reach of nuclear warfare, but his point remains sound. If American democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion. It will happen because “We the People” become so fearful of each other, of the economic, cultural, and security threats we believe to be posed by “the other” — and so dubious about finding a way forward while remaining true to democracy’s values — that we empower a fascist “strong man” who promises to make us “great” again. This is one way for a democracy to “die by suicide,” an act we seem to be contemplating at this very moment.


Why do I like it?


I particularly liked this week’s column because Palmer is one of few commentators addressing recent American political dynamics who, I notice, takes the time to offer his definition of a potentially fascist leader before cautioning against the phenomenon.  I like that Palmer compassionately acknowledges that the appeal of a fascist crosses party lines and “is aroused when would-be leaders appeal to those fearful, angry, and resentful parts in us — in all of us — that yearn for an authoritarian ‘fix’ for our problems and a ‘strong man’ to administer it.”  He goes on to offer the three traits of a “fascist leader in the making”:


One. The leader of a fascist movement doesn’t need a realistic plan to solve anyone’s problems. All he needs is scapegoats, and a promise to eliminate them. If he can convince enough fear-ridden people that their safety, jobs, and most cherished values will be preserved as soon as he rids our land of, say, Mexicans and Muslims, his movement to power is underway, no matter how false his assignment of blame may be.




Two. The leader of a fascist movement has a simple approach to dealing with critics: he kills them off, either literally or metaphorically. I don’t need to explain what “literal” means: hundreds of thousands of Hitler’s critics as well as millions of Jewish scapegoats were murdered in the Holocaust. But that’s not the only way to get the killing done. A fascist leader is skilled at the kind of labeling and name-calling that kills critics off with words. He employs verbal violence to render his critics irrelevant, a legal and effective way of doing them in.




Three. The leader of a fascist movement knows how to turn “We the People” into a circular firing squad, setting us against one another in a way that robs us of collective power. There is irony upon irony in a fascist leader’s rise to power, but this may be the greatest irony of all: people’s sense of powerlessness leads them to empower a leader who makes them even more powerless.


As a professional whose job it is to think about leadership all of the time, I appreciate the compassionate and precise way in which Palmer describes the appeal and devastation of fascism.


In what situations would this be useful?


My interest in this topic, besides a profound sadness at the disturbing rhetoric and increasing violence in the U.S presidential race as is stands today, is a focus on what to do about it.


I ask myself, what must the world look like from the point of view of American voters suffering from such overwhelming fear of physical vulnerability, financial insecurity and displacement from their core cultural values that they would demand the opportunity – in the form of presidential candidates – to give away their own civic power in the process of forcibly taking it away from the “others” they are invited to hate?  My answer: the world must look bleak to them, and more grim and terrifying with each breaking news story.  It pierces my heart to image the degree of desolation they must feel.


As regular readers of this blog know, I am an enthusiastic proponent of exploring how the cluster of new theories of adult development (variously known as ego development, vertical development, spiral dynamics, consciousness development, etc.) intersect with leadership effectiveness.  To me, today’s national election dynamics underscore the importance of nurturing conditions for developmental growth across large swaths of humanity.  Research in my field shows that leaders are more effective when they grow in their capacity for complexity, and that this capacity can be intentionally fostered.  Are we not all the leaders of our own lives, families, communities and communities-of-practice?  What would the presidential race look like if our beautifully diverse nation were composed of individuals who could tolerate working through their complicated fears long enough take a healthy approach to them, rather than lash out reflexively in the anger and blame which are characteristic of a meaning-making system that has a lot of room for growth?


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


I’m fascinated by the fact that, as of the time of this writing, most foreign and domestic betting houses – check out Iowa Electronic Markets, for example – suggest that democracy (as imperfect, uneven in its administration of justice, and susceptible to corruption as it might be at times) will indeed trump fascism in this fall’s general election.


In terms of reading, I would look to Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnstone’s book, Simple Habits for Complex Times (Stanford University, 2015).  They recommend three “habits of mind”: asking different questions; taking multiple perspectives; and seeing systems.  I haven’t read it yet, but I wonder if Robert Kegan and colleagues’ hot-off-the-presses book entitled An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization (Harvard Business Review Press, 2016) might hold clues to what the pathways to an “everyone culture” might look like across a whole nation, and beyond.


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